Mark is in his mid twenties and is struggling to handle a job as an IT consultant. Although he’s employed by a company, his job requires a high degree of autonomy – he has clients he’s responsible for and often works from home. He’s conscientious, works hard and gets good reviews but he suffers about work. He never feels done and worries that he hasn’t accomplished enough each day. The first thing I told him is that at his level, it’s true his work will never be done, and he needs to learn how to increase his tolerance for that fact.
Many people feel like he does. While working with him I realized that work has changed dramatically in the last few years and most of us haven’t caught up with the changes yet. Even five years ago it was easier to manage our workloads. Like me, you probably think your smart phone is the best thing since ATM cards. You can’t imagine living without it. And you probably love your laptop too. You can work anywhere now. Between the two, our offices can go with us anywhere, at any time. Work can flow in and out of our lives. This is the good news. It’s also the bad news. Work has no boundaries and is 24/7 unless we take control. It’s today’s conundrum, isn’t it?
We’re like Pavlovian dogs
At our last meeting, Mark confessed that he checks his email every couple of minutes. No wonder he’s tense. He’s constantly on high alert, feels pulled in different directions, has a hard time getting work done, and finds it challenging to complete things. He’s hardly alone. It’s too easy to interrupt work to peek at email to see who has contacted us. It’s called an addiction.
Mark agreed to turn off the alerts on his devices and also put his phone in another room for a full thirty to sixty minutes at a time so he can concentrate and not be interrupted constantly. It’s no mistake that Pavlov used a bell to train his dogs and we respond to the same sound.
What can we do?
At each meeting Mark and I come up with mantras for him to use to manage his work, enjoy it more and be in control. Here are four of them you might want to use also:
1. Unplug. This is the cue to slow down, turn off the alerts that are like a Pavlovian stimulus to constantly be “on.”
2. Start anywhere. If you feel overwhelmed, just begin somewhere. Beginning will lead you to the next steps and is immediately calming.
3. Pace yourself. You can’t keep up a sprint for long. Slow down. Except for emergencies, slow and steady is a good pace. A long distance race describes most of our work.
4. Stand up and move. Physical breaks loosen up your brain. Even short ones are effective. Continuing to work when you’re tense or tired is self-defeating.
5. Ask for help. Need I say more?
I suggested Mark write these down on a 3 by 5 card and have them near so he can remember to chant them when he needs them.
It’s up to us
Isn’t Mark a great employee? Would that all employees were willing to work on how to do better and enjoy their work. And kudos to his boss who is supporting him by paying for coaching.
Increasingly, it’s up to us to manage our jobs and ourselves so that we stay engaged at work and also create full lives outside of work. One way to do this is to be fully present when we’re at work and fully present when we’re at play with family or friends. Another is to make sure we have our technology and don’t let technology have us.
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